Archives for April 2011



I am not much for getting dressed up, but some occasions call for that.  I oblige as best I can.  Some great vintage costume jewelry, and a little lipstick can do wonders when I need to go out after work.  Lipstick in the garden-the tulips take first prize.  Their large, goblet shaped and brilliantly colored blooms dress up a spring garden like a new lipstick.  Even the pastel colors glow.  Who knows what the real science is, but here is my theory.  The petals are very large, and thin.  This makes them transluscent.  Spring sun shines through the petals-they glow.  This tulip?  American Dream. 


A truly beautiful photograph of a flower or a garden is so dependent on a circumstance of light that endows a flat surface with four edges with depth, and great color saturation.  I understand nothing of the science of photography-I just take lots of pictures.  But I do know my favorite experience of the tulips is not only their gorgeous shapes and juicy leaves and stems- that saturated, glowing color relieves my winter headache in an instant. 

Glowing color is so welcome in my zone-after an interminable and invariably gray winter.  Michigan is known for its long run of sunless days.  By the time spring comes, I feel like I have lived my whole life in blah and white.  No flower comes with packed with more vitamin D than the tulip. 

Tulips come in no end of species and hybrids.  Anna Pavord’s book on tulips-excellent and thorough.  My classification of tulips-much more simple.  There are those that are reliably perennial, and there are those that are half-heartedly perennial at best.  The species tulips, the early tulips-most of them are quite perennial.  They are modest in size, and exotic looking.  Why would they not be?  This species tulip-tulipa humilis hybrid is aptly named Persian Pearl.  I am sure the name refers to its native habitat.     

Tulips comprise a group of 109 species-native to Southern Europe, North Africa, Asia, Anatolia, and Iran.  These are exotic places, given that I live in Michigan.  They have that look-from another world.  The very early species can be crushed by late frosts, but they are stubborn about coming back.  Tulip Oratorio-a greigii tulip, is quite persistent and tolerates planting in a pot that winters in the garage quite well.  

The later blooming hybrid tulips- heart stopping.  I have had Temple of Beauty grow in excess of 40 inches tall.  I have had Blushing Beauty flowers fully seven inches across.  Some years for tulips are better than others-they like a long cool spring.  They hate being frozen through and through.  In very severely cold winters, if they are not planted deep enough, they freeze solid, and rot when the soil warms. 

It is no wonder the long stemmed so called French tulips are a spring staple for florists.  The flowers grow after they are cut, and age.  Extraordinary, this.  They are the devil to arrange-they have their own ideas about placement.   

Tulips are a bloody nuisance-the brown orb shaped bulbs want to be planted in the fall after the soil cools.  As committed a gardener as I am, I have an aversion to putting my hands in cold soil.  Warm soil is one of the great pleasures of gardening.  This is by way of saying it is fairly big work to have tulips to celebrate your spring. Not only do they ask for planting late in the year, they want you to wait many months before you can savor the fruits of your work.  Do not be so discouraged that you do not plant any.

Even one giant blob of tulips will will lift your winter weary spirits.  There are no end of tulips varieties and colors from which to choose from. 

If you have no tulips coming on, stop by.  I planted 2300 tulips in the front garden at the shop last fall.  I am guessing they will begin to show color within a week, and be in full bloom shortly therafter.  I have a client who went for the spring tour at Keukenhof-can you hear me sighing?  My business precludes a spring trip anywhere except to the shop.  That’s exactly why I plant my own version of Keukenhof.  You are welcome to stop by to see this year’s shades of lipstick.


What is not to love about a hellebore?  Just one thing.  They are so slow to get going and get gorgeous-more on this part later.  Everything about their habit and flowers is stellar. The thick leatherly leaves are beautiful all season long.  The flowers are astonishingly beautiful.  I rather think they are the the Ferrari of perennial plants.  They deliver beauty in a visually very powerful way.  They have a capacity for high rpms that leave other perennials in their dust-even though they are quite small when mature.  One could easily imagine fields of them.  Another bonus?  The sepals hold for for a very long time after the flowering has finished-as pictured above.  This gives the impression of a very long period of bloom.  The last of the best?  They are quite willing to set seed.

 Were I but one or two zones warmer, I would grow them all.  Hellebore species are divided by those that are caulescent (meaning they have leaves on their flowering stems) and acaulescent.  Acaulescent hellebores-such as Helleborus Niger, and Helleborus Orientalis, send up flowers stalks before they get around to the business of throwing leaves.  I tried for years to cultivate the caulescent hellelorus argutifolius-unsuccessfully.  The leafy stalks armed with flowers were invariably done in by my winter.  I yanked the entire lot of them, after 7 years.  Their leaves would be so ravaged by the winter that I could barely enjoy the flowers.  How upset I was that they did not grow for me was ridiculous-I wanted them that bad.  Helleborus foetidus and Helleborus lividus-not in the stars.

My current collection-all acaulescent varieties. I have grown up about which hellebores make sense for me.  No matter how badly you want them, they have to like you.  Of course I think any plant that I have a great love for would return that sentiment, and grow for me.  Not so.  So not so.

 I have some Heritage hybrids-from the heritage series-bred from helleborus orientalis.   Some are virtually black-others are white, with spots.  I have pink, mauve, green-and every combination thereof.  I have white and green baby orientalis hellebore hybrids from Knot Hill farms.  The baby part is discouraging; they do take years to make good sized clumps. 

I do so hope that by time I am 80, I will have strongly representing stands of hellebores.  They will do more for my heart than any medicine. If I were you, I would plant 10 of them today.

The hybrid hellebore Ivory Prince is an exception to the pokey rule.  It is a strong and fast grower.  This particular cultivar is an upstart you might want to consider for your garden.  The color-hellebore moody.  Green, cream, and a hint of brownish pink.  The habit-garden worthy.  One of its best attributes-the flowers look up at you.  This part I really appreciate. 

I have flowers not yet in bloom-this should give you an idea of late the spring is.  I like that one of my favorite plants is also one of the first to appear.  They fly that flag that makes me want to get going in the garden.
Very lovely, aren’t they?



Do not under any circumstances miss this part.  The emerging.  Those of us who live in climates where the seasons change-that period of transition can be as brief as it is astonishingly beautiful.  The weather during this time period can be unsettled, even violent.  Plants dormant during our long winter sprout-given the spring.  They emerge; they break ground.  Breaking ground-the phrase suggests a new beginning, a new project.   Vernissage-the French word for opening.  My season is opening. The winter season is fading-spring is emerging. Some change is slow-some change is quick and startling.

 Plants unerringly know when spring is due.  Dormant buds swell, and show green.  My Thelypteris decursive pinnata-my Japanese beech ferns-I see them today.  Yesterday nothing.  Today-a lot of substantial somethings. The hellebore flower stems raise their heads. and grow towards the light.  The tulips out of the ground-2 to 3 weeks until they bloom.  My daffodils moved from short green buds to tall stalks with flowers in just 2 days. 

Pay attention now.  The emerging phase is so short, you may need to cancel plans and stay home, and watch. The boston ivy on my walls show signs of life.  Why these shoots are a brilliant red-I do not know. But I do know that this part of the life cycle of Boston ivy is of great interest to me.    

The earliest of magnolias-I have one unknown variety in bloom right now.  I inherited this tree.  It has quadrupled in size, the past 15 years.  I do not know its name-I only know it is the first plant to make a substantial move in my garden, in spring.  These flowers-a good three weeks later than usual.  This makes the emerging phase all the more precious. High winds and rain will make this blooming moment a short one. 

Time in a garden is never made up.  A very late to come spring means a very short spring.  Pay attention-watch like a hawk.  This spring will surely be very short.  Don’t miss it.  The miracle that is nature-I could write about it all day long for many days.  My writing would matter next to nothing-compared to the experience of spring.  My European ginger emerged and got leafy in the blink of an eye.  This green could not be more welcome. 

My advice?  Experience your spring. Get down on the ground, and look at what is emerging.  This sky blue grape hyacinth-like nothing else I have in my garden.  Clean up.  Walk your garden, once the winter has drained away.  Assess.  Plan.  Most of all-enjoy.  Look to the sky-most trees bloom. Don’t miss the blooming of the shade trees. 

Species tulips have none of the height of hybrid tulips.  But they do have this going for them.  They are early, and quite persistent.  By this I mean, really perennial.  This species tulip, Oratorio, has remarkable foliage.  An upper green leaf stained purple.  Aubergine and green veination-spectacular.     

No one admires box elders-they are junk trees. No gardener plants them.  I do however admire them though, for their willingness to colonize very difficult urban sites. They have no problem living in a precipitous crack in a sidewalk.  The will to live-I admire this.  And their spring blooming is an extraordinary affair.  Not at all ordinary, or noxious.         

This box of lettuce emerging-delicious to my eye. Spring to my mind-so loaded with possibility.  My advice?  Should you be a gardener, expand your horizons.  Become a naturalist.  Observe at ground level.  Look up.  See the shade trees blooming.  Observe, all around.   Any experience of nature will make you a better gardener-I promise.

An Extraordinary Garden

I do think I wrote this winter about some of the books I was reading-winter means gardening from afar in my zone.  Given the snow-I read.  Courtesy of and on the recommendation of Rochelle Greayer at Studio G, I  I bought a book.  “Close: Landscape Design and Land Art In Scotland”.  The well written essays in the book were written by Tim Richardson.  The stunningly beauty photography-by Allan Pollok-Morris.   

I have had really good reason to be reading this book.  Spring got arrested some weeks ago, and has yet to make her bail.  The past few weeks, 4 days of seven have been called on account of rain.  Can you hear me sighing?  Moving on beyond a missing a good many days of spring season-I am reading.  Some books take my mind off the winter that seems to be lingering.  This particular book deserves a place in your library, should you have the space.  One garden in particular has captured my imagination.  Dunbeath Castle, Caithness, Scotland, is extraordinary in every regard.  Dating from the 17th century, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea-heartstopping.   

The gravel drive to the house is lined with ancient and windswept London Planes.  How the drive is sunk into a valley between a pair of grassed knolls-stunning.  The welcoming light at the house, all the more intense given the probable length of the exposure of this photograph-so beautiful.  The sea visible beyond the house- this is a long view with no end.  This may be the most enchanting landscape I have ever seen.  Maybe more extraordinary than the landscape-this photograph.  My copy is poor, but you get the idea.  Allan Pollok-Morris created a work of great beauty.  If there ever was a perfect moment in a landscape-this has to be it. 

I was astonshed to read that this cliff in Scotland regularly endures 100 mile an hour winds.  I see no evidence of that here; the perennial garden is walled.  These perennial borders are breathtaking.  The book tells me that the landscape designer of record currently is Xa Tollemache.  What she has accomplished here, in  concert with her client, is extraordinary.  The stands of heliotrope blue campanula- breathtaking.  

The tall walls protect the perennial gardens here from high winds.  Every spring at the shop, we have broken pots, topiaries snapped off -utter distruction from wind.   This photograph makes me understand that a truly beautiful garden depends on a committment to protect.      

This walled garden is a considerable distance from the castle perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. The work that is involved to foster and permit this garden to thrive is staggering-this is obvious.  My garden is by no means a fairy tale-but I do work at it.  My garden, and the gardens I design, ask for a gardener in charge who happily takes responsibility.  I know lots of gardeners like this. Fairy tale gardens-I depend on these to encourage me to do better.  

At the center of this rose garden-an ornament whose provenance is unbeknownst to me.  No matter. The very tall and beautifully blooming tritoma would be lost without that central ornament of unknown orgin.   The rose garden laid out in concentric circles-lovely.   

The cairn pictured above-do not ask me its material, or inventor.  The plant material clothing this steep slope dropping to the sea-I cannot provide any information.  The red steel reindeer a third of the way down the precipitous slope-I have nothing to add to this photograph.  Make all of what you see in this photograph what you will.  All of the delight of it is the visual experience.      

I love the congestion suggested by Mr. Pollok-Morris’s photograph.  Lots and lots of plants.  A relationship he suggests between a castle, and a distant gazebo overgrown with plants. The sea in the background-anything but cultivated and tended.   

This meadow at Dunbeath Castle-I cannot take my eyes off this photograph.  It is as beautiful as any perennial border I have ever seen.  Amazon has this book available-I highly recommend it.  Beyond this,  I can only say that landscapes and gardens of this caliber are rare; the chance to see it in any form is a great pleasure. The essays of Tim Richardson, and the photographs of Allan Pollok-Morris,  in regards to extraordinary landscapes in Scotland-they shine.